The Purpose of Life
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“The Purpose of Life,” Ensign, Apr. 1993, 22

Doctrines That Make a Difference

The Purpose of Life

For those who struggle through life without knowing why they live, where they are going—and how to reach their highest potential—the restored gospel provides some answers.

Philosophers have struggled for millennia with the same questions: Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? The current cadre might be interested to know that my eight-year-old daughter discovered the answer not too long ago.

Vanessa is in second grade this year. She has learned to read well enough by now that she can almost keep up with her twelve-year-old brother when we read the scriptures together. One day we were reading 2 Nephi when we came across Lehi’s words in chapter 2, verse 25: “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” [2 Ne. 2:25]

I stopped and asked Vanessa, “What does that mean, Sweetheart?”

“I’m not sure about the first part,” she said, “but the last part means we’re supposed to be happy.”

Quite so. Isn’t it marvelous that the doctrines of the Restoration are so clear that even children understand them? Bereft of such light, even the most astute intellects struggle in darkness. Marcus Aurelius, Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor, was only one of multitudes who have vainly sought the meaning of life. His conclusion? “Life is a battle and a sojourn in a strange land, and the fame that comes after is oblivion.”1 Contrast that with the Prophet Joseph Smith’s simple declaration: “Happiness is the object and design of our existence.”2

Doug Stewart, an institute teacher from Apple Valley, California, learned that truth for himself. Doug has diabetes, and one time it nearly killed him. Nine years ago, a missed diagnosis left him untreated for severe mononucleosis and a bleeding ulcer; with his diabetes, the combination sent him into a ketoacidotic coma.

“I became more and more ill,” Doug says, “until finally I slipped into unconsciousness. The next thing I remember was when I came to and began to cry. I vaguely remembered what seemed like a dream and making a choice, but things were still so foggy.

“My wife, who had not left my bedside, told me of a blessing I was given at the most critical period, when I hovered between life and death. In this blessing I was given a choice to live or die. Later, I decided I must have chosen to live so as to be with my family and experience whatever else I needed to learn in this life.”

The experience changed Doug’s perspective on life—and on death. “I know now that when death comes, it will be natural and normal. I’m not afraid of it anymore. Death is only a transition, just as life is a transition.” Life, he learned, is forever.

Does that mean he sees mortality as unimportant, as something of a waiting period? Quite the contrary. “My life is here and now,” he says. “Now that I know what death is, I know what life is—a time to do the best I can do and to be the best I can be. To learn. To be happy.”

The Atonement of Jesus Christ

If happiness is the object of our existence, some may ask, why isn’t life more pleasant? Why do we suffer pain and heartbreak? Why is there so much sorrow?

The truth is, happiness is not synonymous with pleasure or even freedom from pain. Those who expect life to be carefree do not understand that joy is the brother and child of tribulation. True happiness comes from the personal, spiritual growth that rises out of the fires of mortal experience. “It must needs be,” Lehi taught, “that there is an opposition in all things.” Without that opposition, neither righteousness nor joy is possible.3

Some of the trials we face in life we impose on ourselves. Others are caused by the sins and weaknesses of our fellow beings. And some just come because we live in a fallen, imperfect world. Still, the source of our trials is not nearly as important as the fact that they exist and the way we deal with them. The Savior himself underscored that fact for the Prophet Joseph Smith. At one of the lowest ebbs in the Prophet’s life, Joseph cried, “O God, where art thou? …

“How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs [committed against] thy people?”

The Lord’s answer was patiently soft: “My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment;

“And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high.” (D&C 121:1–2, 7–8.)

The Lord then listed tribulations the Prophet could face (and indeed, during his lifetime, did face), ending with words that undoubtedly sustained him through the terrible days ahead: “Above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.

“The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” (D&C 122:7–8.)

Trials, then, are a fundamental part of the plan of life. But that doesn’t mean we have no hope for happiness in mortality. The key to happiness here and eternal joy hereafter is the atonement of Jesus Christ. A friend once expressed his gratitude for the Atonement: “The Lord’s atonement leaves me free to do whatever he needs me to do. Because the Savior paid for my sins, I don’t have to be overwhelmed by them. Though I am weak, the Lord is strong; as I repent, he can help me overcome my imperfections. His grace frees me to be happy.”4

Through the principles and ordinances of the gospel, the Atonement leaves us all free to learn from sorrow, to grow from experience—and to find joy in the process. The path to happiness, the Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God. …

“In obedience there is joy and peace unspotted, unalloyed; and as God has designed our happiness … He never will institute an ordinance or give a commandment … which will not end in the greatest amount of good and glory to those who become the recipients of his law and ordinances.”5

A great many Latter-day Saints can bear witness to the joy that comes from receiving and obeying God’s laws and ordinances. One of them is a South African named Charles Naismith. Four years ago, he and his wife came in contact with LDS missionaries. At the time, he had what he calls “a drinking problem.”

Charles recalls that when the missionaries asked if he could stop drinking, “I said yes. I knew straight away that I had to stop.” And he did, but not without help. “I couldn’t have quit drinking without help from the Holy Ghost,” he says. “At first I saw it as a sacrifice, but it’s the best thing I ever did, other than finding our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.”

The greatest thing the Savior has done for him, Charles says, is to bring a meaning into his life that is inextricably bound to happiness. “I’m just getting a glimpse of what life is all about,” he says. “I strive for happiness. Life is not complicated. People complicate it. So many people I encounter have ‘problems.’ I don’t believe in that word. I have challenges—lots and lots and lots of challenges. But I have them for a purpose. I honestly believe that Heavenly Father is always there, that we can handle anything with his help.”

Body and Spirit

One of the primary reasons we came to earth was to gain a physical body—a temple in which our spirits could dwell and through which we could control the coarser elements of the universe called matter. Indeed, without a body, we could not enjoy a fulness of joy. Said the Prophet Joseph Smith: “We came to this earth that we might have a body and present it pure before God in the celestial kingdom. The great principle of happiness consists in having a body.”6 The Savior assures us that happiness. Through his death and resurrection, he gifted immortal, glorified bodies to us all following our time in mortality.

There are certain challenges involved in possessing a body, of course, and it takes some experience to learn how to bring our bodies into harmony with our spirits. Mortality, and the Atonement, provide us with the opportunity to do so. Mortal life allows us to learn by trial and error; and when we make the inevitable mistakes, the principles and ordinances of the gospel help us to bring our lives into harmony with truth. The Holy Spirit can then sanctify our bodies and prepare us to receive a fulness of joy in God’s presence.7

Among the other experiences that our bodies allow us in this life are disease, aging, and physical imperfections. But these, too, are part of the path to perfect joy. They are often the means by which faith, hope, and charity become integral parts of our character. “I give unto men weakness that they may be humble,” the Lord declared; “… for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them. …

“I will show unto them that faith, hope and charity bringeth unto me—the fountain of all righteousness.” (Ether 12:27–28.)

Sometimes the weaknesses the Lord uses to strengthen us are in ourselves. Other times, they are in others. Shauna Larsen of Orem, Utah, knows how faith and love—and joy—can grow out of such trials. Thirty-six years ago in Maryland her husband, Joseph, was paralyzed from the chest down in an auto accident. He spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. In spite of his disability, Brother Larsen served as a university professor, a bishop, and a stake president. He was a remarkable man of many achievements. While he lived, Shauna says, “caring for him was a total commitment. I lived in his shadow, ministering to his daily needs. And that was a challenge, because he was very active. No grass grew under his wheels.”

But through her selfless service, Shauna says, she grew closer to the Lord and “saw more clearly his hand in our lives. I gained a more submissive attitude than I would have otherwise. Without question, I learned the joy of love and sacrifice.”

When Joseph and Shauna faced their final challenge together—the prospect of his imminent death—Shauna pled in prayer for Joseph’s life, offering to take care of him no matter what his condition. “But it was not to be,” she says. “I felt as though the Lord said, ‘It’s his time to come home; it’s your time to get to know you.’ We need to get to know the Lord, and I think we know him better when we know ourselves. We need to discover our talents and use them in his service. That’s part of the joy we experience in this life.”

“From One Small Degree to Another”

At the close of his life and in an address that brought to a crescendo all he had been teaching the Saints, Joseph Smith declared: “[God] was once a man like us; yea, … God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ himself did. …

“Here, then, is eternal life—to know the only wise and true God; and you have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done before you, namely, by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you attain to the resurrection of the dead, and are able to dwell in everlasting burnings, and to sit in glory.”8

No concept thrilled me more thoroughly when I discovered the gospel as a teenager than the idea that I could become like God; it gave direction to my life at a time when I needed an identity and a reason to stay active in the Church. God is our Father.9 What could be more natural than for him to want his children to become as he is and enjoy all that he enjoys? He himself has declared that his “work and … glory” is to “bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39.)

Of course, such joy is not to be achieved in the few short years we have in mortality. “It will be a great while after you have passed through the veil,” taught the Prophet, “before you will have learned [all the principles of exaltation]. It is not all to be comprehended in this world.”10 Still, our time on earth is of vital importance. Here we take upon ourselves physical bodies—without which we can’t become like our Heavenly Father. It is in mortality that we are tested and refined and gain knowledge we could get no other way.11

When I was younger, I came across a scrap of poetry whose author I have never been able to locate but whose words have echoed in my mind ever since: “Joy is the mainspring in all of earth’s calm rotation.” The more I learn of the gospel, the more convinced I am that those words are true. At the heart of every challenge in life is a seed of joy. And the full flowering of that seed is eternal life.

Eleven years ago, my wife and I were blessed with a new daughter. Within a few minutes of her birth, we learned that our Jenny had Down syndrome. The next few days were difficult. Dora and I struggled with the usual terrible questions: Why us? What did we do wrong? There was an emptiness in our hearts, an aching need for some kind of assurance that Someone was in control.

One night, numb with worry and tired of asking questions my mind knew the answers to but which my heart refused to acknowledge, I asked Heavenly Father for some peace. Just peace.

And it came, washing over me in waves of joy. With that peace came a scene to my mind I have thought much about since. It wasn’t a vision. It was simply a scenario that impressed itself on my consciousness gently but firmly.

In my mind I saw myself with a group of friends in the premortal existence. We had just finished participating in that great council where the plan of salvation had been presented and the Savior offered himself as a sacrifice to assure our eternal lives. As we were discussing the possibilities ahead of us, into our group walked our Father and our Elder Brother. They had appointed our group to be a family on earth, they said, patterned after our heavenly family, with a father and mother and children. Then into my mind came a short conversation:

“One of you,” I imagined our Father saying, “will receive a body and mind with capacities different from the others’. This will present some difficult challenges for all of you. The one who receives this body will not experience life as fully as the others. But it is necessary, so that you all can learn how to love purely and unconditionally.”

There was silence. Father seemed to be waiting for something. He had not yet assigned any of us this mission, and I feared that it might fall to me. Then from among us stepped the brightest and most beautiful. “Here am I,” she said. “Send me.” It was Jenny.

Did that scene really take place? I don’t know. Maybe. But even if that premortal scene did not actually happen, the principle it taught me is true: Jenny is a child of God, a goddess in embryo, and we have much of life and love to learn from each other. Now, whenever I lose my patience with her (she can be quite stubborn and demanding at times), that scene comes quietly to mind. And then Jenny is hugging me, and my world is back rotating the way it should. Calmly. Joyfully.

Happiness, soul-deep happiness, has little to do with outward circumstances. It has everything to do with inner peace. And that peace comes when our lives are so in harmony with the Lord’s that the Holy Spirit can heal our broken hearts and make us whole. Inseparably connected to the Spirit of God, we can then claim our birthright—that peace, that joy which passes all understanding.

The Father’s Plan

The doctrines of the Restoration declare unequivocally that we are eternal beings. “Ye were also in the beginning with the Father,” the Savior tells us; “that which is Spirit, even the Spirit of truth.” (D&C 93:23.) Our progress in the eternities began when “God himself, finding he was in the midst of spirits and glory, because he was more intelligent, saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could … be exalted with himself.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 354.)

The laws our Heavenly Father instituted would allow his children to become like him. (Ibid., pp. 346–48; 1 Jn. 3:2; D&C 132:20–21.) To this end, he formed spirit bodies so that we could learn the lessons of our “first estate” and prepare to learn the lessons of our “second estate”—mortality. (Abr. 3:26; see D&C 138:56.) Since the expression of agency is fundamental to our progress (2 Ne. 2:11–16; D&C 93:28–31), mortality would be a testing period during which we could learn how well we would use our agency when away from our Father’s presence (D&C 98:12–15; Abr. 3:24–25).

But learning involves making mistakes. And since only perfect beings can dwell in the perfect glory of God’s presence (3 Ne. 12:48; 3 Ne. 27:19; D&C 67:13; D&C 76:69–70), we faced a dilemma: How could we learn the lessons of our second estate without sinning? Of course, for all but a divine being, it can’t be done. So in a premortal council our Heavenly Father presented a plan of salvation. (D&C 121:26–32; Abr. 3:22–26; Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 348–49.) The plan was that our Father’s Firstborn (D&C 93:21) would face the challenges of mortality as the divine son of a mortal mother and our immortal Father (1 Ne. 11:13–21). He would live a sinless life (Heb. 4:14–15; D&C 45:3–4) and then voluntarily pay the infinitely painful penalty for our sins. His sacrifice would satisfy the law of justice and enable him to use the law of mercy to redeem us. (Alma 34:9–18.) He would also voluntarily suffer an agonizing death, though he had power over death, in order to be resurrected and thus overcome the tyranny of death for all of us. (John 10:15–18; 1 Cor. 15:51–57; Mosiah 15:6–9; Mosiah 16:7–8.)

In return for these gifts, we would enter into covenants with God to learn our lessons well in mortality and practice them. This we would do by exercising faith in Christ, repenting, being baptized by proper authority in the name of Christ, receiving—and learning to use—the gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end of our probationary period in keeping God’s commandments. (2 Ne. 31:10–21; Mosiah 5:2–5; D&C 66:2.) Other ordinances would be granted us that would prepare the faithful for exaltation. (D&C 124:38–41; D&C 131:1–4; Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 308, 309, 331, 362.) To ensure that these ordinances would be effectual both in time and in eternity, God chose and authorized noble and great men to oversee the performance of these ordinances and lead his righteous children on earth. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 365; Alma 13:3; D&C 84:17–22, 35–38; D&C 107:1–31; D&C 128:8–9; D&C 132:5–14, 28, 45–46; D&C 138:53–55; Abr. 3:22–23.)

Death would separate us from our bodies for a time. While awaiting the resurrection, those who had entered into and kept the Savior’s covenants in mortality would live in a spirit paradise (Alma 40:11–14), pursuing further lessons and teaching the Father’s plan of salvation to those who had not yet received it (D&C 138:29–37, 57). For those who accepted this gospel while they were in the spirit world, ordinances performed vicariously for them on earth would become effective, and they could join the society of the faithful. (D&C 128:18–22; D&C 138:32–33, 58–59.) Those who rejected this good news, on earth or in the spirit world, could not enjoy all the opportunities they would have enjoyed otherwise. (D&C 76:5–6, 50–112; D&C 88:21–24.)

At the Lord’s second coming to earth, those who had proved themselves capable of living celestial law would be the first to be resurrected. (D&C 88:95–102.) They would receive immortal celestial bodies like those enjoyed by our Father and the resurrected Savior. (D&C 76:70; D&C 88:28–29; D&C 130:22; Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 346–47, 367.) Among this group would be some who had received the covenant of eternal marriage and had that marriage sealed by the Holy Spirit; these souls would continue their marriage relationship in eternity. (D&C 131:1–4; D&C 132:4–24.) Those who had not proved themselves worthy of celestial glory would also receive immortal bodies, but of a different nature—terrestrial or telestial. (D&C 88:14–24.) A few of Father’s children would prove to be so rebellious that they could not receive a kingdom of glory and will go to a place prepared for them. (D&C 76:28–38, 43–48; D&C 88:24.)

This plan was prepared and presented in that premortal council. (D&C 121:26–32; D&C 124:33–34; D&C 130:20–21; Moses 5:57; Abr. 1:2–3; Abr. 3:22–26; Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 220, 308, 349, 367.) Most of Heavenly Father’s children met the proposal with a shout of joy. (Job 38:4–7.) A “third part,” however, found the prospect of failing to return to God’s presence so alarming that, led by the brilliant but self-centered Lucifer, they rebelled against their Father and his plan; war erupted, and Lucifer—Satan—was cast out of heaven with his followers. (Rev. 12:3–9; D&C 29:36–37; D&C 76:25–27; Moses 4:1–2; Abr. 3:27–28.) They now continue their attacks on earth against those who sustained the Father’s plan. (Rev. 12:17; D&C 76:28–29.) At the Final Judgment, Satan and the other spirits who fought against God and his righteous children will be “cast away into their own place” with no power to trouble the Saints anymore. (D&C 88:114; see 2 Ne. 9:15–16; D&C 76:33, 44–48.)

Why are we here on earth? Did we live before? Will we live after this life? We are incredibly blessed in our day to have received from God himself answers to these questions. The light he has given us provides solace at death, endurance in trials, and faith to work through the vagaries of life.

Photo by Superstock

Adam and Eve in the Garden, by Stanley Galli

Detail from Christ and the Rich Young Ruler, by Heinrich Hofmann

Photo by Jed Clark; posed by models